Faculty Adrift

Reviewed by Rob Moore

What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education. Mary Burgan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006 (paperback edition, 2009).

The slow but steady acceptance of the market model of competition now being applied to American education is a colossal blunder that threatens its very identity.” So states Mary Burgan in the introduction to What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Burgan proceeds to draw upon her experience as a professor, an academic administrator, and general secretary of the AAUP (1994–2004) to provide depth and detail. While Burgan writes from the perspective of a faculty member in the humanities, her unique background affords her the ability to see a larger picture and allows her to offer an analysis that few others could match. Central to this analysis is the market model and its influence on the increased use of contingent faculty. Burgan argues that by replacing fulltime tenure-track faculty with parttime and other non-tenure-track faculty, colleges and universities have slowly eroded the ability of the tenured and tenure-track faculty to address the other problems that she sees as plaguing higher education.

While the market model provides the larger context in which these specific problems unfold, Burgan is quick to note that tenured and tenure-track faculty must accept some blame for the current state of affairs. As implied in the title of the book, tenured and tenure-track faculty have frequently gone about their business in specialized areas of research or other pursuits while neglecting to note the “drift” that is taking place all around them. In essence, the faculty has often forfeited its historical role in college and university governance, with the consequence that the academy is increasingly shaped by administrative and outside forces. Thus, the book is also a call to the faculty for action. Burgan warns that if professors do not begin to assert themselves, we may one day wake up to find that the possibilities for assertion are no longer there.

It may surprise those who know Burgan that she describes her book as “conservative.” But the book is not conservative in the sense of contemporary electoral politics. Rather, Burgan argues that we must look to past practices of the faculty in the shared collegial governance process in order to save the future. Indeed, the current failure of financial institutions and other business enterprises, operating as they did under managerial models, underscores the notion that the more traditional modes of governance associated with the academy just might be a good way to run an enterprise. Criticizing the business model as frequently “fad-based,” Burgan goes on to defend other more traditional aspects of higher education in the United States, including actual (as opposed to virtual) college campuses.

In her first chapter, “Bricks and Mortar: The American Campus,” Burgan draws upon her knowledge of the history of higher education in American society, as well as her numerous visits to campuses throughout the country, to offer a defense of the traditional campus. In addition to serving as a local resource and the home of students and faculty (at least in their offices), the college campus is most important as the physical site for generational interchange. But even as she defends the traditional campus, she encourages faculty to become more knowledgeable about the whole physical plant and to engage in debate about the wisdom of building oversized sports arenas and other facilities for specialized research, professional development, and vocational training.

Burgan also takes on the myth that professors are overpaid and underworked and challenges the stereotype of the “bloviating professor” as one who is resistant to pedagogical and curricular change. In addressing the issue of large lecture classes, Burgan links the prevalence of such classes to increases in enrollment that have not been met with additional instructional staff appointments as well as to the pressure to spend more time on research rather than teaching. A related criticism of the faculty by conservative “reformers” is that they have allowed a shift away from the traditional core curriculum and its focus on the “great books.” While the vocal critiques of Allan Bloom and others have somewhat subsided, more recent conclusions of former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in her report on higher education indicate that those who would seek to impose curricular standards from outside the academy have not gone away. Once again, Burgan reminds the tenured and tenure-track faculty that curriculum is central to their professional responsibility and warns them to be vigilant about retaining this role against the efforts of others.

Burgan addresses the current embrace of online education, as well as its association with the rise of proprietary schools, and expresses grave concern about the consequences of this development. In addition to furthering the business notion that students are “consumers,” the new model dismisses the core tenet of traditional higher education that there is an intergenerational compact involved in sharing knowledge. Other equally disturbing issues surrounding online education and the rise of for-profit schools have to do with financial aid and accreditation standards. Rule changes in the Department of Education have weakened the enrollment requirements for financial aid, thus effectively subsidizing private businesses with public aid. And regional accrediting bodies have deemed it appropriate to accredit schools that have no tenured faculty, no collegial governance structures, and, frequently, no libraries. To counter this trend, faculty must become more involved in calling for stricter accreditation standards.

In other chapters, Burgan urges a renewed effort to invigorate shared governance structures, a move away from the “winner-take-all” mentality in the competition for academic superstars, and a heightened concern about the dangers of commercial exploitation of the research capacities of our colleges and universities. Underlying all of the issues explored in this book is the encroachment of the market model into the academy, which is affecting notions of teaching, research, academic staffing, curriculum, governance, and campus life. Mary Burgan has provided us with a wake-up call about the responsibilities of the professoriate and has given us practical lessons for exercising those responsibilities. We would be wise to heed her advice.

Rob Moore is assistant professor of sociology at Saint Joseph’s University. He has served on the AAUP’s committees on governance, government relations, and accreditation.

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